Mt. Sneffels Wilderness
We had been hiking up Butcher Creek for close to three hours when we topped a ridge that separated Butcher from Mill Creek. Dallas Peak reared its head to 13,809 feet just to the north. But the really dramatic scene lay below us. Mill Creek formed in a broad meadow carpeted in a rainbow of wildflowers. We weren't seeing the occasional columbine for which Colorado is famous - this field was literally smothered in blossoms, many reaching shoulder high.
This breathtaking view lay along the southern boundary of the Mt. Sneffels Wilderness. Dominated by its namesake 14,150 foot mountain, the wilderness comprises 16,505 acres of dramatic peaks and serrated ridges. By Colorado standards, it's a small preserve, but acre for acre I rate it as one of the state's premier areas. And it offers one of my personal favorite dayhikes of all time, the Sneffels Highline Trail.
Geologically, the area was rich in volcanic activity between 10 and 40 million years ago. Mt. Sneffels itself is an igneous intrusion, formed when molten lava pushed up the substrata, hardened and became exposed as the covering layers eroded away. Volcanic flows created many of the crags, making climbing on the crumbling rock a true challenge - and danger.
Alpine tundra covers most of the wilderness. Although not particularly rich in the diversity of flora and fauna, the land is home to elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep, black bear, bobcat, mountain lion and golden eagle. Smaller mammals include pika and snowshoe hares.
Seasonally, expect the wilderness to be snow-free from about mid-July to late September or early October. In the summer, plan for a cool climate and take rain gear. The morning sky may be crystal blue, but I have spent one cold, wet afternoon atop Blue Lakes Pass. As with much of the Colorado Rockies, rain and lightning are not uncommon late in the day.
The Sneffels Wilderness is more a place for day trips or overnighters than week-long backpacks. The Sneffels Highline Trail is a 13 mile loop out of Telluride that is not to be missed. The Blue Lakes Trail is a point to point in the northeastern corner of the wilderness.
Sneffels Highline Trail - 13 miles; 3,600 foot elevation gain. Access: Cornet Creek in Telluride.
This magnificent hike leaves right from the north side of Telluride. Head up the Jud Wiebs Trail for a short period and cross Butcher Creek to hit the Highline. Follow it north along Butcher Creek into Pack Basin for 2 to 3 hours. You are climbing during this section, heading for a 12,200 foot saddle. The top of the saddle offers views of Dallas Peak and Mill Creek Basin. It was late August when I ventured through the Basin covered in wildflowers. Log posts mark the way.
Along this stretch, the trail crosses into the official wilderness, continuing westward. Another 2 to 3 hours from the saddle, the path circles back south and east and hits a crossing of lower Mill Creek. At this point, hikers can head out to the Mill Creek Trailhead if they have arranged transportation. To continue back to the starting point in Telluride, follow the Deep Creek Trail (also known as the Waterline Trail) for another couple of miles.
Blue Lakes Trail - 6.7 miles point to point; elevation change 4,650. Access: From Yankee Boy Basin out of Ouray or East Dallas Creek Road out of Ridgeway.
The trio of Blue Lakes are the only lakes of note in the wilderness, lying just inside the eastern side. The Blue Lakes trail runs west from Yankee Boy Basin, west of Ouray, to the Blue Lakes Trailhead on the East Dallas Creek Road west of Ridgeway. It can be hiked in either direction, with west to east requiring an altitude gain over 4,000 feet. I chose an out and back hike from Yankee Boy Basin to Blue Lakes Pass. If you four-wheel all the way up Yankee Boy, this hike is a couple of miles each way, though I walked a good bit of the 4WD road myself. The reward of a steep set of switchbacks to 13,000 foot Blue Lakes Pass is a fantastic view into the wilderness. Mt. Sneffels stood against a steel gray sky the day I was there, and the lakes reflected dark thunderheads.
Mt. Sneffels is far and away the most popular peak destination in the area. From the south side, the climb is a strenuous scramble. From the north, it is a technical challenge.
The south side ascent starts in Yankee Boy Basin. The climb is 2 to 3 miles and about 2,000 feet up, depending on where you start in Yankee Boy. From the Blue Lakes Trail, the summit route branches north below the pass to a wide saddle less than a mile away. Then you ascend a narrow couloir filled with loose rock. If you are climbing on the weekend, expect a crowd.
Dallas Peak at 13,809 feet is another good destination for peak-baggers. Dallas is rated by many as a very difficult ascent, with roped climbing recommended for the summit pitches. The normal route is to start from the Telluride water catchment area on Mill Creek Road. From there, its roughly 13 miles to the summit with an elevation gain of about 4,400 feet.
The San Juan Hut System runs from the East Dallas Creek Road out of Ridgeway along the north slope of the Sneffels Range, then loops south and east to Telluride. A 6 mile (one-way) section from the Last Dollar Road to North Pole Peak Yurt passes through a mile of the wilderness area. To find the trailhead, take the Last Dollar Road south from Highway 62 for less than two miles. The route follows rolling terrain with a couple of steep climbs.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication